The Wrath of Khan

How A. Q. Khan made Pakistan a nuclear power—and showed that the spread of atomic weapons can't be stopped

Khan by then was a schoolboy, and according to Zahid Malik, he was a perfect one. He was devout, studious, and respectful of his teachers, and for good measure he was also a perfect son. All this and more, Malik believes, had been foretold. He writes that some months after Khan's birth his mother took the infant to a fortune-teller, known as the Maharaj, to look into his future. After performing calculations the Maharaj said, "The birth of this child will bring good fortune to his family. The child is very lucky. He is going to do a lot of good deeds in his life ahead. He will receive two kinds of education."

In the book Malik pauses to explain: "Probably the Maharaj referred to the Science of Metallurgy and Nuclear Physics, or perhaps to a local and foreign education system."

The fortune-teller continued, "Up to the age of eight months, he will suffer from stomach pain and a cough, after which he will have a long and healthy life. He will outstand in his family and will be a source of great pride and honor to his parents, brothers, and sisters. He is going to do very important and useful work for his nation and will earn immense respect." Furthermore, "Due to your son's good luck, you will soon be rewarded with great wealth."

But first there were troubles to endure. At the time of the Partition, in 1947, one of the greatest migrations in human history got under way, as over the course of a few months more than 10 million people—Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims—fled the hostility of their old communities and sorted themselves out in the new nations. They moved by train and bus, and on foot. In the absence of governmental power India's social hatreds took form, and the migrants were attacked by mobs. The history is obscure and highly propagandized, but it seems that entire trainloads were massacred on both sides, that rape was rampant, and that several hundred thousand people died. In Pakistan perhaps seven million Muslims arrived, however traumatized.

Abdul Quadeer Khan was not initially among them: his parents chose to remain in Bhopal, where their lives seemed comfortable enough. But the city was no longer really their home, and over the subsequent few years its Muslim residents endured increasing harassment by their Hindu neighbors and the Hindu police. Three of Khan's older brothers and one of his sisters eventually left for Pakistan, and in the summer of 1952, having passed his matriculation exam, A.Q., at the age of sixteen, followed them there. He traveled across India by train, among a group of other Bhopali Muslims who were intimidated and attacked by Hindu railroad officials and the police. Jewelry and money were stolen from his companions, and people were beaten. Khan lost merely a pen, but the bullying marked him for life. The train ride ended at the border town of Mona Bao, beyond which lay a five-mile stretch of barren desert, and Pakistan. Zahid Malik describes Khan's crossing in the style of a founding epic. Carrying his shoes and a few books and belongings, the young A. Q. walked barefoot across the blistering sands to arrive at last in the Promised Land. He went to live with one of his brothers in Karachi. His mother arrived soon afterward. His father stayed in Bhopal, and died there some years later. Khan enrolled at the D. J. Science College of Karachi, where he excelled.

Pakistan by then was five years old. It was still a democracy, albeit a messy one. It had already fought and lost its first war with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir, a mountainous and predominantly Muslim region which for complex political reasons went to India at the time of the Partition. Pakistan had drawn the wrong lessons from its battlefield loss. It was born a poor nation and could not afford war, but its people hated India, and its military was on the rise. In 1958, on the pretext of threats to the nation, the army of Pakistan overthrew the democratic government and declared martial law. It is not known how Khan reacted. He was twenty-two, and in his final years in college. He believed, as many Pakistanis still do, that India had never accepted the Subcontinent's partition, and (as he told his friends) that Hindus were tricksters with hegemonic designs. It is possible, therefore, that he accepted the need for firm leadership. In later years he argued publicly against military rule despite the fact that he was providing Pakistan's generals with the ultimate weapon, and with that weapon, increased arrogance and strength. But in 1958 he was still essentially an apolitical young man, intent on studying science.

He graduated from college in 1960, and at the age of twenty-four became an inspector of weights and measures in Karachi. It was the sort of government job that might have lasted a lifetime, but Khan was more ambitious, and he secured the funding to pursue his education abroad. In 1961 he resigned from his job, and flew to West Berlin to study metallurgical engineering at a technical university there. His German grew fluent. He was lonely for Pakistan, but open to the experience of living in Europe, and to making new friends.

In 1962, while on vacation in The Hague, he met the woman who would become his wife. He had written a postcard home, and when he inquired about the price of a stamp, she was the stranger who happened by with an answer. Her name was Henny. She was a frumpy-looking girl of twenty, in glasses, who had been born in South Africa to Dutch expatriates, and had spent her childhood in Africa before returning with her parents to the Netherlands. She held a British passport, and though she spoke native Dutch, she lived in Holland as a registered foreigner. She and Khan corresponded for a few months, after which she took a job in Berlin to be closer to him. After a year they returned to Holland, where Khan transferred to a university in Delft to continue his studies in metallurgy. In 1963 he and Henny were married in a modest Muslim ceremony at Pakistan's embassy in The Hague. The marriage was performed by an embassy official and witnessed by the ambassador, as a standard service to citizens abroad. There was a small tea party, as was usual. Khan had no special connections to the Pakistani government, and was not yet working as its spy.

Nonetheless, he was making university contacts in the fields of engineering and applied science, and unintentionally laying the foundation for the European network that would help Pakistan to produce nuclear arms. Khan spent four years in Delft, where he earned a master's degree and learned to speak good Dutch. He and Henny then moved to Leuven, in Belgium, where he pursued doctoral studies at Catholic University under a professor named Martin Brabers—a metallurgist who was later to serve (innocently, he claimed) as an important consultant to the Pakistani nuclear-weapons program. In Belgium, Henny gave birth to two daughters, two years apart. Khan said that he did not need a son, and that given the overcrowding of the world, two children were enough. He was not a brilliant researcher but a willing and hardworking one. Over the course of his studies in Delft and Leuven he published twenty-three papers and edited one book (with Brabers) on a variety of arcane metallurgical topics. His superiors were impressed, and so were his friends. To top it off, he was affable and outgoing and, as everyone agreed, just a very nice guy.

In 1972 he received his Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering, and having cast about for jobs, went to work in Amsterdam for a consulting firm called FDO. He might just as easily have taken a position at a university, a steel mill, or an aircraft manufacturer; he certainly was not setting out to build a bomb. But FDO happened to specialize in the design of machines called ultra-centrifuges—rapidly spinning tubes used to separate and concentrate certain isotopes in gasified uranium, in order ultimately to produce enriched uranium. FDO was a major subcontractor for a consortium called URENCO, which had been founded jointly by the governments of Britain, Holland, and Germany two years before. It had built a large state-of-the-art centrifuge plant in the Dutch town of Almelo, on the border with Germany, to enrich uranium for the nuclear-power-generation industry. The process there is in broad strokes not difficult to understand. The fissionable isotope known as U-235 exists in natural uranium at a concentration of only 0.7 percent; for the purposes of a power-generation reactor the concentration of that isotope has to be increased about fivefold, to at least three percent; the trick is to isolate and shed a similar isotope known as U-238, which is infinitesimally heavier. By spinning at very high speeds—electrically driven to 70,000 revolutions per minute, in perfect balance, on superb bearings, in a vacuum, linked by pipes to thousands of other units doing the same—this is what the centrifuge achieves. At URENCO the purpose was peaceful. One problem, however, with nuclear technology is that often the difference between a peaceful and a military purpose is merely a matter of the mind. Tangibly, the type of centrifuges in use at URENCO were (and are) capable of continuing the enrichment process past the commercial mark, and of concentrating the U-235 to more than 90 percent, which is the threshold necessary for a fission bomb.

As a result, the operational details at both URENCO and FDO were held as state secrets, and Khan—like other employees—needed to receive a security clearance before going to work there. This turned out not to be an obstacle. The Dutch internal security service ran a background check, and Khan was approved. Much has been made of this since then, as if the background check was too perfunctory; but Khan had strong references and a clean record, and even he did not yet know what was soon to be on his mind. He was thirty-six years old, a diligent husband, and the father of two. He moved with his family into a nice little house in a nice little town, and settled in to enjoy a quiet Dutch life.

But then history came chasing Khan down. It took the form of war. In the spring of 1971, after years of discriminatory treatment by Pakistan's dominant west, East Pakistan rose up in rebellion and began to agitate for independence as a new nation, called Bangladesh. The Pakistan military reacted brutally, and a terrible civil war broke out on the Bengali deltas and plains. The fighting went on inconclusively for most of the year, generating huge casualties among civilians and sending several million refugees streaming across the borders into India. Pakistan's international reputation sank to an all-time low. Having gauged the geopolitical effect of this correctly, and emboldened by its friendship with the Soviet Union, India then seized the opportunity to dismember its foe, and mounted a full-scale invasion of East Pakistan with overwhelming force. The battles were short. Pakistan's once strutting army collapsed, and in December of 1971, at a humiliating ceremony in a stadium in Dacca, it unconditionally surrendered. Ninety-three thousand Pakistani soldiers were taken prisoner. For what it's worth, an independent Bangladesh was born.

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William Langewiesche is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. More

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

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